Tuyo: Miami culinary icon Norman Van Aken stays true to his New World vision

View a slide show of Tuyo.

Tuyo: Miami culinary icon Norman Van Aken stays true to his New World vision
Culinary icon Norman Van Aken. View more photos of Tuyo.

After a brief elevator ride to the top floor of the new Miami Culinary Institute, diners entering Tuyo are instantly captivated by the sweeping view afforded by dramatically framed floor-to-ceiling windows. The breathtaking vista brings the illuminated Freedom Tower and American Airlines Arena front and center, with Biscayne Bay to the right and city lights glittering in the background: Tuyo in the sky with diamonds.

Panorama aside, the 60-seat dining room is lovely. Linen-draped tables are formally set with gorgeous Rosenthal show plates, and comfortably cushioned chairs sit on a recycled wood-grain floor. Small lights recessed into a modern wave-inspired ceiling mimic the celestial dots outside.

The star inside is executive chef Norman Van Aken, aided and abetted by Jeffrey Brana as chef de cuisine. Travis Starwalt is sous chef, Max Santiago is the pastry chef, and sommelier Sarah Brownell rounds out the team. But Norman is the foreman — and the draw, man. After all, he is the only chef from Florida inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America, and his groundbreaking Norman's, which debuted in 1995 in Coral Gables, was arguably the most important and influential Miami restaurant of its time. Van Aken remains chef/owner of Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando and director of restaurants at the Miami Culinary Institute. His last project, Norman's 180, was short-lived and his presence there even shorter, which makes Tuyo something of a comeback project. During our visits, Van Aken was in the kitchen, which right off the bat is an improvement.

Tuyo's oyster pan stew. View more photos of Tuyo.
Tuyo's oyster pan stew. View more photos of Tuyo.

Location Info

Map

Tuyo

415 NE 2nd Ave.
Miami, FL 33132

Category: Restaurant > Caribbean

Region: Downtown/Overtown

Details

Tuyo

305-237-3200
tuyomiami.com

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m.

Fanny Bay oyster stew $18
Charred cobia ceviche $16
Grilled pompano $29
Rhum-and-pepper-painted golden tilefish $34
S'mores pumpkin cheesecake $10

View a slide show of Tuyo.

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View a slide show of Tuyo.

Randy Newman once wrote a self-mocking song about past-their-prime performers. "Each record that I'm making sounds like a record that I've made," he laments, "just not as good." Yet if Van Aken's food doesn't possess the wow factor it once did, it isn't because it's "not as good," but because so much new and exciting cuisine has come down the pike since his peak.

Tuyo's charred cobia ceviche surely looks and tastes up-to-date with its bright, petite bursts of papaya, pickled cucumber, basil, and Asian spices. And oyster pan stew with black trumpet mushrooms and a Béarnaise base plugs right into the current enchantment with twists on American comfort food. But excepting a more pronounced nod to local produce, this bill of fare could have been culled from the chef's original repertoire. For better or worse, it is not, as the menu description claims, "trailblazing."

Yet there is something admirable about Van Aken remaining true to his New World cuisine roots rather than focusing on foams and other food fads. And it is a tribute to the chef that he was so conceptually ahead of the curve that nearly two decades later, his cuisine remains distinctive.

One reason might be because nobody else has ever really picked up the New World baton. Cindy Hutson of Ortanique has long been spinning Caribbean cuisine, and Douglas Rodriguez remains the daddy of Nuevo Latino at De Rodriguez Cuba, but the slew of new South Florida chefs has mostly ignored the southern part of this hemisphere in favor of Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean.

Diners at Tuyo start with an amuse-bouche — or at least some diners do. On one visit, we were not among the chosen, nor was the table adjacent to ours. At least we were granted one fresh, soft, warm ciabatta roll apiece. On a return trip, our rolls were plated and replenished upon request. But we'll get to service the way the servers got to us: later.

As with a savvy veteran singer, Van Aken's playlist is a compilation of past hits interspersed with newer creations. The concise compilation comprises "first plates" such as conch chowder "Brazilian"-style; a salad of local lettuces with heirloom tomato, avocado, roasted beets, pepitas, blue cheese, and sherry dressing; and anywhere from four to six appetizers (the menu changes daily).

Certain menu descriptions encompass concepts so grandiose they would make even Newt Gingrich blush. For instance: "My Down Island French toast, with curaçao-scented foie gras, grilled brioche, gingery candied lime zest, and a savory passionfruit caramel." That dish, pulled from the chef's old bag of tricks, flaunts flavors that remain bold and complex and, as is occasionally Van Aken's wont, are reliant on a number of seemingly incongruent ingredients working in tandem to produce something bigger than its parts.

A newer creation — tuna and tomato tartare — doesn't fare as well. The tuna gets tossed with tomato salsa that overwhelms the finer attributes of the fish. "Crisp potatoes," also known as potato sticks, are tossed on top for texture, and a "Joël Robuchon-inspired mollet egg" is cooked sous vide so that ideally the white is firm but the yolk is runny — except our egg was slightly overcooked, so it ran nowhere. The "whole" in this case was smaller than its parts.

The aforementioned cobia ceviche presents a semisuccessful marriage. Think of it as a Russell Brand-Katy Perry coupling. The smoke of the charred fish, with the sweet and vinegary flavors, leads to an initially exciting matchup — but it's ultimately too pickled and clashing.

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4 comments
Paulperry60
Paulperry60

Its amazing after all these years that Newtimes Miami can still employ someone who only gives an opinion,which is normally not worth the paper it,s printed on and inaccurate,to inform us consumers what,s happening at new eateries.His reviews are rarely even close to what he writes.And once again ,it,s only his opinion.Get over yourself and PLEASE!!!, Miami get over this self-proclaimed FOOD CRITIC?????

Rlopez
Rlopez

You are too impressed with Norman for being Norman.He is a good guy but his time has passed. He has had a bunch of failures of late and I think Tuyo will be one as well. The menu is too limited,especially the appetizers, and the atmosphere is way too stuffy. I felt like I needed a monacle and a pipe to eat there. The restaurant has potential but they need to come down to earth. The whole concept is sort of anti fun and pro stiff.

mariacperez
mariacperez

His time passed? Would you say that to the numerous chefs out there that have successful businesses decades old? You have not learned that success is failure turned inside out? It is called the power of persistence and Tuyo is just another business like any other business. If something happens in the future, it will only be a location fading away because true talent does not fade my friend and you have some extremely talented chefs in that kitchen, some that make other chefs ears burn when they hear they name, but THAT is a good thing in its own right. Too stuffy? No, it's called "class" something that apparently Miami has lost a lot of maybe because of spending too many nights eating at mediocre restaurants run by a bunch of duffuses sporting their muscles and goatees. Give me a break. Thank god you think its not for you, that should of been the concept all along, to weed out people like you who have NO IDEA what fine cuisine is.

 
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